Thirty years ago PCKO Architects broke into what was a tough UK market. Now they’re hitting China. So what’s their secret? Andrew Ogorzalek and Peter Chlapowski talk to Emily Wright about luck … and vodka
’Whether it’s in love or work, everyone needs luck in their life. And we have always considered ourselves tremendously lucky.” So says Andrew Ogorzalek, one half of the Polish architectural duo that heads PCKO Architects. It’s a practice that, 30 years ago, could have been doomed to fail. Two 20-somethings with huge, clashing personalities and “a couple of girlfriends” behind them left Krakow with hopes of breaking into the tough UK market.
“We had no contacts, no projects, and no roots. No links to the UK market at all,” says Ogorzalek. “So we won most of our work through entering competitions.”
“And winning them,” adds fellow director Peter Chlapowski. And when they won it was often to the displeasure of what was, back in the early eighties, an old-fashioned and very British profession: “I am not sure the RIBA was happy when a couple of foreigners won the Crystal Palace housing competition in 1980 rather than some well known, superstar architects,” smiles Ogorzalek. “But this is what launched our career; it’s still there and unchanged today. We were so lucky.”
Sitting in an exhibition at the Building Centre in London celebrating 30 years of their work , Ogorzalek and Chlapowski talk candidly about making it in the UK, how they are tackling the Chinese market and how, these days, they prefer a glass of wine to a shot of vodka.
Two young boys
It is instantly obvious just how much of PCKO’s character and style comes from the relationship between the directors. Their partnership is underpinned by a grittiness and inoffensive bluntness: “Our relationship is like a 30-year marriage,” says Chlapowski. “We are very different but it works and, after some very heated arguments, we get the best out of each project.”
Does the fighting ever become problematic? “We don’t fight seriously anymore,” says Ogorzalek. “Rather challenge each other’s ideas. Peter is very systematic and more cautious whereas I am more likely to get carried away. I used to get annoyed, being criticised for having all of these ideas that were not entirely well thought through. At the beginning it was more difficult as there was a clash of personalities. We were just young boys in a new environment and a new country.”
Despite finding it difficult to break into the UK market in 1981, the pair’s foreign perspective actually helped: “Coming from a different background gives you that sharper perception of your environment. You notice things that other people don’t notice. You get excited by things that other people don’t recognise,” says Chlapowski.
“Your little villages and towns for example,” says Ogorzalek. “Maintaining that British charm and not succumbing to standardised, American-style suburbia.”
And it seems to have done the trick. The £2m turnover practice now has a client list that reads like a Who’s Who of British housebuilders, housing associations and developers from Barratt to Berkley Homes and Countryside Properties to Cala. They have also secured contracts to work with three local authorities in London.
In 2009 the group had to downsize its London office from 36 to 30 and turnover dropped by 20%. It has been creeping back up, along with the firm’s profit figures, but Ogorzalek says the competition element of the business doesn’t always offer much security: “Because of our track record in competitions, we are asked by developers to take part in a number of them […] Although our clients pay us some symbolic fees, they are not the fees you get when you win the job. And doing a number of competitions at a time can break you financially. But then we had an almost 99% success rate.”
The market over the next 12 months and beyond looks set to get even tougher, something PCKO are painfully aware of. For architects, being at the front end of the construction industry is a harsh place to be when markets take a nosedive and development stops. But PCKO has access to something everyone else is desperate to get on their portfolio - China.
Eastern risk and reward
China is the holy grail of construction work at the moment. A strong economy and fast urbanisation have created the perfect environment for huge government investment in infrastructure and resulting development opportunities country-wide. But getting a foot in the door of such a competitive market is extremely difficult.
“We already have experience entering a tough market,” says Chlapowski. “We did it once before when we came to England. We figured that, if we did it once, we could do it again.
“There are similar challenges with China, just that they are 10 times more complex. And then once you have won the work it’s equally hard. It’s very tough to create a sense of place in huge cities of 40 million.”
This was the main challenge for the firm when they were approached by a Chinese developer, four years ago, through a link with a Chinese associate in the practice’s London office. The brief was to create a village and masterplan a 90 hectare scheme high in the mountains near Chongqing. The development will offer local people somewhere to go to get out of the city and pollution.
They are about to start work on an 160 hectare scheme in Cheng Du - the silicon valley of China - where the rich from Shanghai and Beijing are expected to buy second and holiday homes. And this, says Ogorzalek, is one of the untapped opportunities of the Chinese market: “There is so much work in leisure schemes,” he says. “But not for tourists; for the Chinese who want to go on holiday. They want to be in absolute luxury but have everything arranged in accordance with their tradition.”
The other area of work PCKO is talking to Chinese developers about is care home facilities. With an ageing population and the Chinese one child policy, there is a lack of people to look after the elderly.
With so much work in the pipeline, the group set up an office in Shanghai last month. Ogorzalek admits it has been a risky manoeuvre, but they are convinced it will pay off. “For a long time we didn’t get paid. But it wasn’t because we had bad clients, it was the bureaucracy. You can’t really ask for the money up front. It’s seen as an insult, a lack of faith. And relationships are very important in China.”
Everyone we know drinks vodka
Despite the tough market, PCKO expect turnover to increase to £2.5m for the year ending April 2012. And they make sure they celebrate every success. With vodka? Both men laugh. “We always have vodka around,” says Ogorzalek. “Our friends drink it, our neighbours drink it, our work colleagues drink it. But these days Peter and I actually prefer a nice glass of wine.”